There may finally be justice in sight for another of fraudulent dog handler John Preston’s victims.
More than 36 years after being convicted and sent to prison for murdering his neighbor Helen Nardi, Gary Bennett remains adamant that he had nothing to do with the crime. Now, after spending weeks looking at Bennett’s case and deliberating, one of Brevard County’s most prominent criminal defense firms has agreed to take Bennett’s case at no charge in an attempt to win his release.
The involvement of the Melbourne law firm of Funk, Szachacz and Diamond is a huge boost for Bennett’s hopes.
“Speaking for Alan, Keith and me, we’re all on the same page we just keep coming back to there is no question in our minds that this guy just did not receive a fair trial,” said attorney Kepler Funk. “It really comes down to that. He didn’t receive a fair trial and that’s what is motivating us to move forward.”
Bennett, the subject of season one of our award-winning podcast “Murder on the Space Coast,” turned down a plea deal that would have seen him serve seven years in prison. His case is rife with problems including testimony from two jailhouse snitches, a poor performance by his court-appointed attorney, a 12-hour police interrogation even after Bennett requested an attorney, recordings of police interviews going missing, lack of evidence against him and investigators who ignored obvious suspects in Nardi’s murder.
Murder on the Space Coast: Did he do it?
Torres: Gary Bennett’s ‘Kafka-esque’ saga continues to bewilder
But perhaps most damaging was the testimony of Preston. Already under suspicion in other jurisdictions as being a fraud, Preston performed a “scent evidence lineup” and his dog supposedly linked one of three murder weapons to Bennett’s scent. Prosecutor-turned-Judge Dean Moxley, later told the jury that the dog evidence was the equivalent of a fingerprint on a murder weapon.
“In my mind the trial (Bennett) had was disgusting,” said attorney Keith Szachacz. “To allow the introduction of that type of testimony and that type of evidence is a sham and proven to be a sham.”
When I began working on Murder on the Space Coast podcast, I reached out to State Attorney Phil Archer to lay out the apparent holes in the case my reporting found and ask if he’d participate.
He responded with an e-mail.
“All of the factual and evidential issues you have raised have been repeatedly vetted by both the trial and appellate courts which have declined to grant a new trial. If any new evidence is discovered that might be relevant then the attorney for the Defendant can file the appropriate pleadings in order to obtain a hearing before the court,” he wrote. “That is the process for obtaining a new trial and where we will appear to represent the interests of the State. We do not discuss our cases in a podcast. As it stands, there is more than sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction of Gary Bennett regardless of the minor role played by Preston and the dog.”
In case you missed it: Torres: Were these men framed?
Remember, Preston’s testimony previously helped convict Juan Ramos, Wilton Dedge and William Dillon who were later cleared or exonerated. Preston was proven to be a fraud and every case he worked on in Arizona was overturned. Couldn’t Bennett be another of Preston’s victims? How can Archer say there is sufficient evidence to uphold Bennett’s conviction?
Bennett took a polygraph and showed no deception. He voluntarily took a rape test kit and was not a match. He had no violent history. Bennett knew the victim and had been inside her trailer. That’s why Bennett said a single partial palm print of his was found.
There were numerous other unidentified fingerprints found inside Nardi’s trailer as well.
The victim, Nardi, was having a sexual relationship with her son-in-law Kermit Parkins at the time of her murder. Parkins, who was 10 years older than the 55-year-old victim, married Nardi’s daughter Mary to prevent the state from taking Mary away from her mother’s custody. Nardi’s two other children were removed from her custody after it was learned she was pimping them sexually.
None of this was brought up at trial and neither Parkins nor his wife Mary were ever seriously looked at as suspects though police did note their odd and uncooperative behavior from the start.
Take the dog malarkey out and who knows what the jury would have decided? That’s the part of all this that rankles former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Alan Diamond.
“As a prosecutor what I tried to do was to make sure justice was served,” Diamond said. “That didn’t always mean necessarily getting a guilty conviction. It meant getting to the facts and making sure the victims were taken care of but that justice was served and I have no confidence in this verdict based on what I saw. The evidence the jury considered should not have been put in front of them. And I don’t feel that justice was done. “
The attorneys would not divulge what their first moves would be only that they needed to drive up to Madison Correctional Institution and meet with Bennett in person as a first order of business.
After the podcast aired in 2016, retired real estate attorney Francis Clifford reached out and befriended Bennett. He has worked tirelessly advocating for Bennett and on a piece of legislation that would allow for further appeals. Clifford has also rallied the community behind Bennett getting them to send him letters and birthday cards. But now Bennett also has criminal lawyers in his court.
Maybe the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, albeit slowly.
Contact Torres at 321-242-3684 or at [email protected] Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter @johnalbertorres or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/FTjohntorres.
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